Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Middle episodes in trilogies have the potential to be fundamentally dissatisfying. Thankfully, George Lucas has managed to avoid that pitfall for Episode II of the Star Wars saga, Attack of the Clones. Admittedly, the primary purpose of this film is to advance the overall story, bridging the gap between the lightweight, heroic antics of The Phantom Menace and the overwhelming darkness of the as-yet unnamed Episode III. Attack of the Clones has a starting point and a stopping point, but no true beginning or end. And it also shares elements in common with Lucas' earlier Star Wars middle episode, The Empire Strikes Back.

The Phantom Menace was probably the most overhyped motion picture of the last decade (if not longer), and its reputation suffered as a result of its inability to satisfy unreasonable expectations. By comparison, Attack of the Clones reaches theaters almost unheralded (and in the long shadow of Spider-Man). This is still viewed as the summer blockbuster-to-beat, but the publicity engine has been toned down, and the other studios are not afraid to "counterprogram" (for example, the Hugh Grant movie, About a Boy, opens opposite Attack of the Clones). Yet many people who felt let down by The Phantom Menace (I was not one of them) will likely be encouraged by what Lucas has accomplished here. Despite the silly title (a tongue-in-cheek nod to the old movie serials), Attack of the Clones is a more mature motion picture. In fact, the only age group who will probably like Episode II less than Episode I are those under 10, who may be frightened or intimidated by the darkness and intensity of this outing.

Attack of the Clones opens approximately ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), having spent a decade under the tutelage of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), is anxious to take the tests that will mark him as a full-fledged Jedi, although Obi-Wan advises patience. Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), formerly the Queen of Naboo, has arrived on the planet of Coruscant, the Republic's capital, to let her voice be heard on the key issue of what to do with seceding systems. When an attempt is made on her life, Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) assigns Obi-Wan and Anakin to protect her. This mission leads them in different directions - Obi-Wan pursues the assassin, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison) to a hidden planet known for developing clones, while Anakin accompanies Amidala to Naboo. While there, the would-be Jedi and the Senator fall in love. Soon after, Anakin and Amidala leave Naboo for Tatooine to discover what has become of Anakin's mother. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan begins to unravel a sinister plot that leads to the mysterious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and the Sith Lord Dark Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), who is manipulating everything from behind the scenes.

Episode II opens with a bang - literally. There are some early action scenes, including an impressive chase sequence through the air and streets of Coruscant, then exposition takes over. In fact, the middle section of Attack of the Clones is so bogged down with setting up current and future plotlines that the pace starts to flag. It's difficult to decide how Lucas could have done this differently, but the reality is that parts of the film border on being too talky. Nevertheless, from a dramatic standpoint, the screenplay holds up better than that of The Phantom Menace. The film's highlight is a rousing battle sequence that consumes the final 40 minutes and includes, among other things, a massive conflict between Jedi, clones, and battle androids; a two-on-one lightsaber duel; and our first opportunity to see why Yoda (Frank Oz) is considered the greatest of all Jedi. Attack of the Clones closes with a series of scenes that presage what will happen in Episode III.

Lucas has described Episode II as "a love story", and, to a certain extent, it is. There's no denying that one of the key aspects is the deepening relationship between Amidala and Anakin. When it comes to writing and directing, however, Lucas has not mastered bringing emotional moments to the screen. The chemistry between the two young leads is almost entirely the result of the performances of Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen - the corny declarations of love and somewhat stiff camera work does little to amplify the passion. We don't doubt that these two are in love, but Attack of the Clones will not go down in history as one of the great love stories of our time. It does what it needs to do - sets up the relationship between these two - but doesn't do much more.

As far as the actors are concerned, there's more meat here than in The Phantom Menace. Ewan McGregor gets an opportunity to do something with the character of Obi-Wan. This still isn't Oscar-worthy stuff, but at least he's not just standing around reacting to Liam Neeson. Portman seems more lively, and gets a chance to display some athleticism. Newcomer Hayden Christensen is the most successful. It's his job to show the impatience, anger, and pain simmering within Anakin. It was difficult to imagine Jake Lloyd becoming Darth Vader. Not so with Christensen. Plus, there's a heat in his gaze when he looks at Amidala that indicates, from the very beginning, that his interest in her contains a sexual component. Considering Star Wars' coy approach to sex, this is closest to eroticism any of the films has come.

In supporting roles, Ian McDiarmid is back as Darth Sidious/Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. His increasingly desiccated appearance brings him closer to the decaying old man under the Emperor's robes in Return of the Jedi. Christopher Lee plays his new minion, giving Lee the distinction of playing villains in two current, high-profile movie series (the other being The Lord of the Rings). Temeura Morrison (the abusive husband in Once Were Warriors) is Jango Fett, the father of Empire/Jedi's Boba Fett. Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu has greatly increased screen exposure (including a few action scenes). Ahmed Best is back as the reviled Jar Jar Binks, although the CGI creature's importance has been dramatically decreased. And the beloved duo of R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) are together again, providing the entirety of Attack of the Clones' limited, low-key humor.

As expected, Attack of the Clones excels in the technical arena. As was the case with The Phantom Menace, the special effects represent eye-popping, state-of-the-art computer artistry. Outdoing everything previously or currently available in multiplexes, Lucas' realized vision for this film sets the next benchmark for other big-budget extravaganzas to match. The background detail is rich and textured (it will be amazing to purchase the DVD of the film and pause it during the Coruscant scenes just to appreciate what Lucas' computer artists have accomplished), and the final battle offers monsters, spaceships, and thousands of combatants fighting with lightsabers and blasters. This sequence is as capable of generating awe as it is of provoking an adrenaline rush.

The film offers treats for Star Wars continuity mavens. The Star Wars Tatooine moisture farm homestead is faithfully recreated (some thirty years earlier). The Death Star is briefly mentioned. Some of the space ships are beginning to look like their later counterparts. And Amidala wears outfits and a bun-style hairdo that recall Princess Leia's appearance in the original trilogy. Composer John Williams adds his contribution, liberally recycling previous themes. A subdued version of the "Imperial March" ("Darth Vader's Theme") dogs Anakin's footsteps until the full orchestra plays a rousing rendition during the film's closing moments.

Attack of the Clones displays some similarities to The Empire Strikes Back, but, overall, it is not as effective a piece of cinema (although the 2002 era special effects make it far more pleasing to the eye). Both films contain romantic subplots and are darker in tone than their predecessors. Both develop a number of unresolved plot elements. And both end on a note that incorporates hope with ambiguity. There is, however, one major difference. The Empire Strikes Back includes a shocking revelation. Nothing of that sort is present in Attack of the Clones. In terms of its plotting, this film is relatively straightforward. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact, it works. In a time when, more often than not, sequels disappoint, it's refreshing to uncover something this high-profile that fulfils the promise of its name and adds another title to a storied legacy.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2002-05-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1